### Education as Signaling

From Andrei Toom, “A Russian Teacher in America,” Journal of Mathematical Behavior 12 (1993): 117-139.

Suppose you fly in a plane. What is more important for you: the pilot's real competence or his papers that certify he is competent? Or suppose you get sick and need medical treatment. What is more important for you: your doctor's real competence or his diploma? Of course, in every case the real competence is more important.

But last year I met a large group of people whose priorities were exactly the opposite: my students. Not all, but many. Their first priority was to get papers that certify that they are competent rather than to develop real competence. As soon as I started to explain to them something that was a little bit beyond the standard courses, they asked suspiciously: "Will this be on the test?" If I said, "no," they did not listen any more and showed clearly that I was doing something inappropriate.

I had to learn also that American students want to be told exactly from the very beginning of the course what percentage of the total score comes from homework, from tests, and from quizzes. First I thought that it was some nonsense, as if I were requested to predict how many commas and colons I would use in a paper I was going to write. But later I understood that these percentages make sense for those students who do not care about the subject and take a course just to get a grade with minimal learning.

. . . It seems to be generally taken for granted that students nominally learn as little as possible for a certain grade. Only by a misunderstanding may they learn more, and when this happens due to an undetailed syllabus, they blame the teacher like people who blame an official whose neglect caused them a loss.

It is the basic principle of the market that everybody tries to get as much as possible and to pay as little as possible. There is nothing wrong with this: When I buy something, I try to save money, and everybody does the same. What is wrong is that some students apply the same rule to learning: They seem to think that they BUY grades and PAY for them by learning. And they try to PAY as little as possible!In other words, some students seem to think that it is a loss whenever they learn something.This looks crazy when put in such straightforward terms, but there are students who behave as if they think this way.